THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

227 posts categorized "Decoration"

16 January 2019

The Southwark Hours: a new acquisition

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The British Library is pleased to announce its recent acquisition of an illuminated medieval manuscript, the Southwark Hours, now Add MS 89309. It is now fully digitised and is on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery for all to admire.

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Christ in Majesty with the Evangelist symbols: Add MS 89309, f. 94r

The manuscript is a Book of Hours, made in Paris in the last quarter of the 14th century. Books of Hours contained sets of prayers for reading at different ‘hours’ of the day and night. Spanning the divides of gender, age and status, they were the most popular books owned by laypeople in the late Middle Ages. The Southwark Hours is a particularly fine example. Its pages are festooned with ivy-leaf borders glittering with gold, and its major prayers are headed with delicate illuminations attributed to the ‘Ravenelle Master’. For its patron, most likely a French noblewoman, it would have been an invaluable aid to piety as well as a beautiful book.

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The Entombment: Add MS 89309, f. 215v

We can catch a glimpse of this mystery patroness within the manuscript’s pages. The prayer for the final hour of the day (Compline) in the set of prayers known as the Hours of the Passion is accompanied by an image of the Entombment of Christ. In the image, Christ’s dead body is laid out on his tomb by two pall-bearers, while the Virgin Mary, St John, St Mary Magdalene and two other holy women gather in mourning. The woman who kneels praying in the foreground is almost certainly a portrait of the manuscript’s original owner. Her insertion into the Passion scene evokes the intimate and emotional experience that she hoped to achieve through her prayers.

The head and shoulders of the same woman also appear within a decorated initial at the opening of the Penitential Psalms, beneath a miniature of Christ in Majesty (f. 94r), pictured above. She gazes at the words from Psalm 6: ‘Domine ne in furore tuo arguas me neque in ira tua corripias me’ (O Lord, rebuke me not in thy indignation, nor chastise me in thy wrath), while the illuminated figure of Christ looks down at her.

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The Annunciation: Add MS 89309, f. 20r

The most impressive page in a Book of Hours is usually the opening prayer for the first hour of the day (Matins) in the Hours of the Virgin — a series of prayers addressed to the Virgin Mary that were central to any Book of Hours. True to tradition, the Southwark Hours opens this prayer with an exquisite illumination of the Annunciation.

It is apparent that before the arrival of the angel, the Virgin Mary had been reading studiously. Looking closely, we can read her open book, ‘Ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium’ (Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son; Isaiah 7:14), and so discover that she is studying the Old Testament text that prophesies about her own important role in salvation history. She kneels on a sumptuous blue cloth patterned with golden stars, recalling her epithet as ‘Stella Maris’ (star of the sea). The vase of lilies in front of her symbolises virginity.

In contrast with the Virgin Mary’s serene stillness, the angel Gabriel makes a dramatic entrance from the upper left. One foot trails out of frame and one peacock-feather wing projects in front of the frame, giving the impression of immediacy and movement. Gabriel’s gracefully looping scroll bears the prayer ‘Ave Maria’ (Hail Mary; based on Luke 1:28 and 42). Meanwhile, God the Father presides in the upper corner and the dove of the Holy Spirit descends. The scroll of musical notation carried by the three angels in the upper border encourages us to imagine divine music accompanying the scene, while the scroll-bearing prophets in the lower margin prefigure this momentous event.

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The Deposition: Add MS 89309, f. 210v

The manuscript formerly was on long-term loan from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark (Loan MS 85/4). Mgr Matthew Dickens, the Vicar General & Chancellor & Trustee of the Archdiocese of Southwark, commented: ‘We are delighted that the British Library has been able to acquire for its permanent collection the Southwark Book of Hours. This is a particularly fine example of illuminated manuscripts of this period and it is right and proper that it should be held in a major national collection, to be enjoyed by the public and to be available for scholarly research. I should like to thank the British Library staff and donors who have made this acquisition possible.’

Dr Kathleen Doyle, the British Library’s Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, said: ‘I am delighted that the Southwark Hours is joining the Library's remarkable collection of illuminated manuscripts, including treasures of French illumination and Books of Hours from across Europe.  The manuscript is an important witness of the Ravenelle Painter’s work, and one of only two that indicates that the he worked for aristocratic female patrons.’ We are grateful to the Friends of the British Library for their assistance in funding this acquisition.

The manuscript is now on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library, together with another manuscript (Add MS 35215) and two printed Books of Hours, to allow visitors to compare the similarities and differences between the same text in different media.

 

Eleanor Jackson

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15 January 2019

Gorgeous manuscripts galore

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One of our favourite online resources is the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. It has recently been updated to include fifteen new manuscripts and lots more images.

The Stavelot Missal

You can already view the enormous 11th-century Stavelot Bible on our Digitised Manuscripts website (Add MS 28106 and Add MS 28107). Two more manuscripts from the Benedictine abbey of Stavelot, in the diocese of Liège, have now been added to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

This 13th-century missal is bound in two volumes (Add MS 18031 and Add MS 18032). The litany of saints includes St Remaclus, patron of the abbey, and a notice of the dedication of the monastery ('Dedicatio Stabulensis ecclesie') on the calendar page for June. The manuscript's 14th- or 15th-century additions include a mass for St Poppo of Stavelot and the feast of Thomas Becket, inserted in  the calendar (f. 13v).

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The Crucifixion with Mary and John, from the ‘Stavelot Missal’, volume I: Add MS 18031, f. 18v. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here, together with the second volume.

 

A Psalter from Stavelot

This early Psalter with a Latin commentary is one of a group of manuscripts produced at Stavelot around the year 1000 and illuminated in the distinct Mosan style.

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David and Goliath in the Stavelot Psalter: Add MS 18043, f. 64v. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

The Gospels from Tours

Tours was an important centre of Carolingian manuscript production in the 9th century. The style of decoration of this gospel-book is Franco-Saxon, combining elements of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon decoration, including a distinctive combination of orange-red and gold. This framed incipit page includes display capitals in gold on purple grounds.

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Incipit page of the Gospel of Mark: Add MS 11849, f. 72r. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

Isidore’s Etymologies

This manuscript of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies was made at Neuvelle-lès-la-Charité in eastern France in the 4th quarter of the 12th century. The decorated page below contains a consanguinity diagram, showing which family members were deemed to be too closely-related to marry by the medieval Church. The entwined foliage with the tendrils held by human figures represents the blood ties between family members, and there are strange hybrid creatures at the three points of the triangle.

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Consanguinity diagram from Isidore of Seville's Etymologies: Add MS 15603, f. 93r. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

Cicero

This 12th-century manuscript, made in the southern Netherlands or northern France, contains Marcus Tullius Cicero’s De inventione, a handbook on how to be a good public speaker. It is followed by the Rhetorica ad Herennium, the most popular work on rhetoric throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. These two texts were often copied together and were used to teach rhetoric in a structured and disciplined way.

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Cicero seated holding a scroll reading 'Marci Tulii liber primus incipit': Add MS 16984, f. 3r. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

The Sherborne Cartulary

This collection of royal, papal and episcopal charters contains a number of letters written by Anglo-Saxon kings (Edgar, Æthelred and Cnut). The volume also contains a series of liturgical texts including accounts of the Passion of Christ, with portraits of St Mark and St John.

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St John the Evangelist, from the Sherborne Cartulary: Add MS 46487, f. 52v. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

These two Psalters, both produced in the latter part of the 12th century, have a similar layout. The text of the Psalms in the central column is surrounded by a gloss or commentary, and there are large decorated initials marking the beginning of the major Psalms. However, the style of illumination points to different areas of origin: the first in England or northern France, and the second in southern Germany or eastern France.

An English or French Psalter

This elegant Psalter was made in the 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century. It begins with a large, illuminated initial that includes pictures of David and of Christ preaching to a group of men.  

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Beatus initial from a Psalter: Add MS 17392, f. 1r. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

A glossed Psalter

The gloss in this 12th-century Psalter is attributed to the circle of Anselm of Laon (d. 1117). Added on the last leaf, in contemporary script, is a tract on curing haemorrhoids (f. 196r).

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Decorated initial from a Psalter: Add MS 18298, f. 143v. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

A Psalter of the Use of York

This late 12th- or early 13th-century Psalter was possibly made for the Augustinian abbey of Bourne in the diocese of Lincoln, since additions in the calendar include Abbot Henry of Bourne and Hugh of Lincoln. It seems to have been owned later by a Cistercian monastery, because 15th-century additions to the calendar include the feast of St Bernard of Clairvaux and other saints venerated by that Order. It has large gold and coloured initials at the beginning of major Psalms, many of them with animal heads and bodies entwined in the foliage.

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Zoomorphic initial from a Psalter: Add MS 38819, f. 70r. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

The Percy Psalter

The 13th-century Percy Psalter is thought to originate from York. It has beautiful illuminated initials, while the borders contain mythical beasts and graphic hunting scenes. Unicorns were believed to be symbols of purity and grace, which only a virgin could capture; in order to hunt one successfully, it first had to be tamed by a young girl before being killed, as shown here. At the top of this page is the pelican biting its breast to revive its young. The initial depicts David pointing to his mouth, showing that he will avoid 'sinning with the tongue' (Psalm 38).

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The beginning of Psalm 38, from the Percy Psalter: Add MS 70000, f. 55r.

 

Old Testament from Genesis to Ruth

This is the first volume of another large Bible (in five volumes), produced in the Meuse valley around 1430. It belonged to the Benedictine abbey of St James, Liège, whose coat of arms and motto (‘CONSTANTER AD ASTRA’) is pasted on the spine. The opening page for Genesis has roundels of the seven days of Creation, marginal figures of angels with scrolls containing quotes from Augustine, and paired pagan and Christian philosophers These include Augustine with his attribute of a heart, Albertus Magnus in discussion with Averroes, and Old Testament figures including Melchisedek.

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The beginning of the Old Testament: Add MS 15254, f. 13r.

 

A religious miscellany

This miscellany of religious tracts, offices, prayers and meditations was compiled between the 13th century and the 15th century. Some of its texts are connected with Ely Priory, such as a metrical epitaph for Alan of Walsingham, prior of Ely (d. c. 1364). It also includes a story of the Virgin teaching a new Latin prayer, Missus est angelus, to a canon named Arnaud. The large puzzle initial below marks the beginning of a prayer to the patron saint of a church.

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Puzzle initial in a miscellany: Add MS 33381, f. 128r.

 

Chantry Westwell

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06 November 2018

Coins, swords and urns: British Museum loans in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

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Our landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, presents an unrivalled chance to see Anglo-Saxon manuscripts alongside some of the most stunning objects from this period. Many of these artefacts have been generously loaned to the exhibition by the British Museum, to whom we are extremely grateful for their support. Their objects help to illuminate the origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the period of Mercian supremacy, and the period of conquest in the 10th and 11th centuries.

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The Loveden Hill Urn: British Museum, BEP 1963, 1001.14

The Loveden Hill Urn, dating from the second half of the 5th century, is one of more than 1,800 urns excavated at this cremation cemetery in Lincolnshire. Uniquely, it bears a runic inscription, which includes what could be a female personal name, SïÞæbæd. This constitutes one of the very earliest pieces of evidence for the English language. You can explore a 3D model of this urn on the Sketchfab website.

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The Sutton Hoo gold belt buckle: British Museum, BEP 1939, 1010.1

This exquisite gold belt buckle, excavated in the Sutton Hoo ship burial in the 1930s, is one of the most recognisable objects in our exhibition. The ship-burial included a wealth of other items including armour and weaponry, as well as a collection of silver bowls and two silver spoons which possibly came from Byzantium. This ship-burial commemorated someone of outstanding wealth and political significance in the early 7th century.

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Kentish disc brooch: British Museum, BEP 1884,1221.4

Another stunning gold item loaned by the British Museum is this 7th century disc brooch discovered at Faversham, Kent, in 1859. It was found in a woman’s grave, and its gold and garnet style bears many similarities to other elaborate brooches discovered in southern England.

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Gold dinar of Offa of Mercia: British Museum, CM 1913,1213.1

The British Museum has also loaned three outstanding coins to the exhibition, which together illustrate the height of Mercian power in the late 8th and early 9th centuries. The coin shown above is the gold dinar of King Offa of Mercia (d. 796). This unique coin carries the inscription OFFA REX on one side; on the other is a design based on an Arabic inscription on a coin of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (d. 775). The Arabic inscription translates as ‘there is no God but Allah alone’; the minting of this coin in Offa's name perhaps reflects his wide political reach and the value he placed on international trade.

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Silver penny of Cynethryth of Mercia: British Museum, CM TYS (BMC 60)

This coin was issued in the name of Offa’s wife, Queen Cynethryth (d. 798). It is the only surviving example of a coin issued in the name of an Anglo-Saxon queen.

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Gold mancus of Coenwulf of Mercia: British Museum, CM 2006, 0204.1

This gold coin was issued in the name of Offa’s successor, Coenwulf of Mercia (d. 821). Its design closely mirrors other gold and silver coins from the same period. It may be the earliest gold coin intended to form part of a regular, uniform currency.

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The Fuller Brooch: British Museum, BEP 1951, 0404.1

The Fuller Brooch has been dated to the late 9th century on account of its unique design, which reflects the centrality of man’s place in the order of creation. The outer circle features four quadrants, each filled with four smaller circles which alternate between depictions of mankind, animals, birds and plants. In the centre are five figures, which are believed to represent each of the five senses. The central figure holds two floriated stems and stares out with prominent eyes, representing sight, and is surrounded by four figures which represent smell, hearing, touch and taste.

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The Ædwen Brooch: British Museum, BEP 1951, 1011.1

Another British Museum object in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is the Ædwen Brooch, which has been dated to the early 11th century. An inscription in Old English was etched into the outer rim of the reverse: ÆDVǷEN ME AG AGE HYO DRIHTEN / DRIHTEN HINE AǷERIE ÐE ME HIRE ÆTFERIE / BVTON HYO ME SELLE HIRE AGENES ǷILLES ('Ædwen owns me, may the Lord own her. May the Lord curse him who takes me from her, unless she gives me of her own free will').

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Silver-gilt fitting with runic inscriptions: British Museum, BEP 1869, 0610.1

A runic inscription is found on this silver-gilt fitting, the shape of which suggests that it may have once been part of a scabbard.

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Seax with runic lettering: British Museum BEP 1857, 0623.1

This large iron knife or seax also has a runic inscription. This includes a runic alphabet and the name Beagnoth, who may have been the original owner or the craftsman who produced the blade.

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Sword with decorated fittings: British Museum, BEP 1887,0209.1

Another fearsome blade loaned to the exhibition by the British Museum is this magnificent sword, complete with decorated fittings. Although it is extremely rare to find this type of sword in England, they are more common across northern and eastern Europe, suggesting that this sword may have belonged to a Scandinavian warrior.

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Seal-matrix of Ælfric: British Museum, BEP 1832, 0512.2

Seal-matrices were used to make an impression in a wax seal to authenticate a document or to close it. This matrix is made of copper alloy and is inscribed + SIGILLUM ÆLFRIC (‘+ Seal of Ælfric').

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Seal-matrix of Godwine and Godgytha: British Museum, BEP 1881, 0404.1

A second seal-matrix is made from walrus ivory, and is inscribed + SIGILLUM GODWINI MINISTRI (‘+ Seal of Godwine the Thegn’). The matrix was later re-used by a nun, who had her own inscription added on the reverse, reading + SIGILLUM GODGYĐE MONACHE DEO DATE ('+ Seal of Godytha, nun given to God’). Godytha may have been Godwine's wife or daughter. Both of these seal-matrices were high status objects, perhaps issued in connection with the performance of official duties on behalf of the king.

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Blythburgh writing tablet: British Museum, BEP, 1902, 0315.1

Another extraordinary object loaned to the exhibition by the British Museum is this 8th-century writing tablet, discovered at Blythburgh in Suffolk. Since parchment was relatively expensive to produce, tablets such as these were used when scribes were learning to write, making drafts or taking notes. This tablet is one half of a pair, and the other side would have originally been attached with leather thongs threaded through the two holes in the ling side.

We are extremely grateful to the British Museum for lending these fascinating objects to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. They can be viewed at the British Libraryuntil 19 February 2019.

 

Rebecca Lawton

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24 October 2018

The Utrecht Psalter on loan to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

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At the end of the British Library's landmark Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition are three incredible and interrelated works of art. The earliest — and the one that sparked an artistic revolution — is the Utrecht Psalter, made in Reims (now northern France) during the reign of Louis the Pious (814–840). We are extremely grateful to Utrecht University Library for its generous loan of this beautiful manuscript to our exhibition.

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Psalm 14 from the Utrecht Psalter: Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 32, f. 8r

The drawings in the Utrecht Psalter are revolutionary in their approach to illustrating the Psalms. Previously, the Psalms were sometimes ornamented with scenes from the life of King David, either on a few pages or painted inside initials, as in the Vespasian Psalter, made in Kent in the 8th century.

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Detail of an historiated initial showing King David saving a sheep from a lion: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 53r 

By contrast, the Utrecht Psalter’s ink drawings illustrate every phrase from the text of the Psalm on a given page. Check out the annotated version produced by Utrecht University to see how each element in the drawing was inspired by a different line in the text. In addition to literally representing the Psalms, these drawings offer visual interpretation and commentary.

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‘Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns’, as depicted in the Utrecht Psalter: Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 32, f. 12r

The Utrecht Psalter was hugely influential for the style of its drawings. This manuscript was one of many books that travelled between the Continent and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. By AD 1000 it had arrived in Canterbury where a direct copy of it was made, now known as the Harley Psalter, and also currently on display next to the Utrecht Psalter.

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‘Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns’, as depicted in the Harley Psalter: Harley MS 603, f. 12r

The vivid style of line-drawings in the Utrecht Psalter had a huge impact on early English art beyond the immediate copies of the Psalter. Many manuscripts associated with Canterbury, from calendars to canon tables to archbishops’ handbooks, contain lively drawings that show its influence. Drawing was considered a high-status art form on a par with painting in late 10th- and 11th-century England, and some images mix both styles.

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Psalm 14 from the Harley Psalter: Harley MS 603, f. 8r

The Utrecht Psalter continued to inspire art at Canterbury after the Norman Conquest. One of these later copies was the 12th-century Eadwine Psalter (Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1), which is also displayed alongside the Utrecht and Harley Psalters in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

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The Eadwine Psalter: Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1, f. 24r

The three Psalters ultimately ended up in different collections. The Harley Psalter was acquired by the earls of Mortimer and Oxford and became part of the Harley collection. The Eadwine Psalter was sent to Cambridge and is now in the Wren Library in Trinity College. In turn, the Utrecht Psalter came into the possession of Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631), a noted collector of manuscripts. At the back of the volume, Cotton added some leaves from an 8th-century gospel-book, which seems to have been made at Wearmouth-Jarrow, Bede’s monastery. At some stage, the oldest surviving charter from England was also part of the volume, but it was subsequently removed and is now Cotton MS Augustus II 2.

Cotton loaned the Utrecht Psalter on at least two occasions. James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh (1581–1656), probably borrowed this manuscript around 1625 and described it in his notebook. Later, Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel (1585–1646), borrowed seven books from Cotton’s library including ‘an auncient coppie of the Psalms. Literis maiusculis, in Latin, and pictures’.

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Sir Robert Cotton owned the Utrecht Psalter in the 17th century. In this portrait, commissioned in 1626, he is shown resting his hands upon the Cotton Genesis (courtesy of the Rt. Hon. Lord Clinton, D.L., Heanton Satchville, Devon).

Cotton's collection was used by writers who were looking for political arguments and precedents. In 1629, Charles I ordered that Cotton’s library be closed, on the grounds that it included a tract that advocated for absolutist monarchy, and Cotton himself was briefly imprisoned.

Robert Cotton died soon afterwards, in 1631. Meanwhile, Thomas Arundel seems to have taken the Psalter with him to the continent. There, his family lived rather lavishly, and the possessions of his son William Howard, Viscount Stafford (1612–1680), were auctioned twice to pay off debts. Eventually, Willem de Ridder acquired the Utrecht Psalter, and he bequeathed the manuscript to Utrecht Library on his death in 1716.

We are very grateful to Utrecht University for generously loaning this superstar to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, so that it can be displayed alongside the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter. You can book tickets to see it here. The manuscripts discussed in this blogpost are also featured in a catalogue published to accompany the exhibition, available in both hardback and paperback from the British Library shop.

 

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

The British Library

19 October 2018–19 February 2019

 

Alison Hudson

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17 October 2018

Manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms online

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The British Library holds the world’s most important collections of books made or owned in England between the eclipse of Roman Britain and the Norman Conquest of 1066. These books and documents contain crucial evidence for the development of society, economy, literature, government, art and religion during the transformative period between the 7th and the 11th centuries. Ahead of the Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, we are delighted to announce that over 200 manuscripts made or owned in England before 1100 can now be viewed in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts website, along with the surviving single-sheet documents produced before the Norman Conquest. We’ve produced a list of manuscripts digitised as of October 2018 that appear in Helmut Gneuss and Michael Lapidge, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A Bibliographical Handlist of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014): Download Digitised Manuscripts from the AngloSaxon Kingdoms. The list is available here as a spreadsheet (this format does not work with all web browsers): Download Digitised Manuscripts from the AngloSaxon Kingdoms

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Miniature of David surrounded by musicians and scribes, from the Vespasian Psalter, made in Kent in the 8th century with later additions: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v

Many of these manuscripts were digitised in 2015 and 2016 in memory of Melvin R. Seiden. Others have been digitised thanks to the generosity of a variety of other funders. These books and documents demonstrate the range of writing produced by early English speakers, including the oldest intact European book; epic poems; short riddles; mesmerising illuminated Gospel-books; even rough notes on 200 cheeses. The list includes not only books that were made in England, but works whose annotations show they were owned in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. For example, the oldest book known to have been owned in England in this period was made in Africa. 

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Detail of Biblical quotations from the letters of Cyprian, made in North Africa in the 4th century, with annotations added in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms around the 8th century: Add MS 40165a, f. 3v

Still more Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are being digitised all the time under The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. Stay tuned to the #PolonskyPre1200 hashtag on Twitter for the latest updates. 

Other early manuscripts could not be photographed in the traditional way due to historic damage, such as burning and erasures. However, Christina Duffy and the British Library's Conservation Centre have been doing pioneering work with new forms of imaging. Come to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition to learn more, and to see some of these manuscripts in person, as well as online. 

 
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20 September 2018

The Book of Durrow to be displayed at the British Library

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It is now less than one month until the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition opens at the British Library on 19 October. Today, we are delighted to announce that the Book of Durrow will be on display in the exhibition, on loan from the Library of Trinity College Dublin. This manuscript, dated to the late 7th or turn of the 8th century, is believed to be the earliest fully decorated gospel-book to survive from Ireland or Britain.

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Elaborated initial at the opening of the gospel of Mark

The carpet page and opening of the Gospel of Mark, in the Book of Durrow (Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, ff. 85v–86r). © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin.

The date and origin of the manuscript have long been debated. Strong parallels with early Anglo-Saxon metalwork, including objects from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, encouraged former attributions to Northumbria. A sword pommel from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, also closely resembles some aspects of the decoration in the Book of Durrow and will be on display in the exhibition. However these similarities seem to reflect the dispersal and durability of Anglo-Saxon metalwork, and the strong cultural and artistic connections between Ireland and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The Book of Durrow is now generally considered to have been produced in the monastery of Durrow, Co. Offaly, or to have arrived there from Iona.

Our forthcoming exhibition will be the first opportunity to see the Book of Durrow in Britain since it was displayed at the Royal Academy in the ‘Treasures of Trinity College Dublin’ exhibition in 1961. The only loan to that exhibition was the Lindisfarne Gospels. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will be the first occasion on which the two manuscripts have been exhibited together for nearly 60 years. As we announced in November last year, the exhibition will also include Codex Amiatinus, which was made in Northumbria in the early 8th century and is returning to Britain for the first time since it was taken to Italy in 716.

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The opening of the Gospel of Matthew, in the Lindisfarne Gospels (British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 27r).

The Book of Durrow contains the text of the four Gospels, adorned with spectacular decoration. Its artists drew inspiration from Ireland, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Pictland and as far away as the Mediterranean. Its designs are outstanding for their precise geometry, harmonious compositions and bold style of drawing. One of the most striking features of the manuscript is its ‘carpet pages’, so-called because they are completely covered with complex geometric designs. Putting abstract ornament centre stage was new to manuscript illumination, and went on to play an important role in Anglo-Saxon gospel-books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Page showing twisted anmals of Anglo-Saxon or germanic influence

The carpet page preceding the Gospel of John, in the Book of Durrow (Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, f. 192v). © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin.

 Other important elements of the manuscript’s artwork are the images of the evangelist symbols, the creatures that symbolise the gospel-writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Early Christian writers assigned the evangelists the symbols of the man, the lion, the ox/calf and the eagle based on the visions of Ezekiel and John the Evangelist in the Bible. The Book of Durrow is the first surviving manuscript in which each Gospel opens with a picture of the evangelist symbol instead of a portrait of the human evangelist. It is also the first surviving instance of a ‘four-symbols page’ in a manuscript, an image of all four evangelist symbols arranged in a cross shape. The linear style and flat blocks of colour suggest that the creatures were inspired by metalwork objects.

Eagle symbol at teh start of the gospel of Mark

The eagle, acting as the evangelist symbol of St Mark, in the Book of Durrow (Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, f. 84v). © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin.

The Book of Durrow is one of the most spectacular surviving works of early medieval art and we are very grateful to Trinity College Dublin for loaning this manuscript to the exhibition. If you haven’t already booked tickets to see the Book of Durrow — along with the earliest surviving complete Latin Bible, Old English poetry, Domesday Book and more early art — you can book them here. The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition runs from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.

 

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11 July 2018

The Winchester Psalter: an illustrated bilingual Psalter

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After the Norman Conquest, the principal language of the aristocracy in England was French, rather than English or Latin.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the Bible was translated into French at an early date. Given the importance of the Psalms in the medieval Church, several early French translations were made, including three or four versions of St Jerome’s Gallican or Gallicanum text, known as such because it was adopted in Gaul as the principal form of the Vulgate. St Jerome completed this translation between 386 and 391, basing it on Origen’s Greek text of the Psalms from the edition of the Old Testament in Hebrew and Greek, the Hexapla.

Twelve manuscripts of the 12th to 13th centuries are known of the so-called Oxford Psalter, based on the Gallicanum version, a translation compiled in England, and all have an English connection. The Winchester Psalter, with an extensive cycle of images, is the most splendid copy of these English manuscripts.

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The Winchester Psalter: Cotton MS Nero C IV, ff. 49v–50r

In this Psalter, the Psalm text is laid out in parallel columns. The Latin is in the right column on the rectos, and in the left on the versos, so that the French text appears side by side when the book is open. This suggests that the book may have been intended for someone who was more comfortable in French than Latin, and that Latin may have served as a kind of reference or critical apparatus to aid the reader. 

The Winchester Psalter is now on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, open to the beginning of the Psalms. The manuscript is also available in full on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. There is a large initial beginning each translation of the biblical text. It is the Latin initial ‘B’(eatus) (blessed) that is more elaborate, with an image of King David writing and playing a viol; while the ‘B’(eonuret) (blessed) on the left is elaborated with foliate decoration only.

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Psalm 1 in the Winchester Psalter: Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 46r

The French version of the text is interpretative rather than literal: for example, the ‘blessed man’ (beatus vir) of the first verse becomes a baron (Beonuret Barun) who does not take counsel with felons (des feluns). 

The Psalter is perhaps better known for its very extensive series of thirty-eight surviving prefatory drawings with coloured washes, including the dramatic and evocative vision of the end of time, with an angel locking the door of Hell. 

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An angel locking the door of Hell: Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r

The book also includes a Calendar, which provides evidence as to its origin. Saints of particular relevance to Winchester are included, among them Bishops Æthelwold (d. 984) and Brinstan (d. 934), and saints buried or with shrines there, such as Eadburh (d. c. 951), a Benedictine nun and daughter of Edward the Elder, and Grimbald (d. 901?), by tradition the co-founder of New Minster (later Hyde Abbey). The Calendar also includes two abbots of Cluny in Burgundy, Sts Hugh (d. 1109) and Mailous (d. 994).

The bishop of Winchester throughout the middle of the 12th century was King Stephen’s younger brother, Henry of Blois (r. 1139–71), who had been educated at Cluny. Henry was one of the richest men in Europe and a known art and relic collector.  When appointed to the see of Winchester, he refused to relinquish the profitable abbacy of Glastonbury, which he held concurrently with Winchester until his death. The Cluniac references, Cathedral-specific prayer and Henry’s great wealth make him a plausible patron for such a lavish book, even if its vernacular components and central focus on the Psalms in French suggests that he may have intended it as a gift for a layperson.

 

Further reading

Francis Wormald, The Winchester Psalter (London, 1973). 

Kristine Haney, The Winchester Psalter: An Iconographic Study (Leicester, 1986). 

Ruth J. Dean & Maureen B. M. Boulton, Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts, Anglo-Norman Text Society, Occasional Publication Series, 3 (London, 1999), nos. 445–456.

Geoff Rector, ‘An Illustrious Vernacular: The Psalter en romanz in Twelfth-Century England’, in Language and Culture in Medieval Britain: The French of England c. 1110–1500, ed. by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (York, 2009), pp. 198–206.

Scot McKendrick & Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), no. 20.

 

Kathleen Doyle

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09 June 2018

Sir Robert Cotton's manuscripts added to Memory of the World register

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We are delighted that Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. Cotton's library contains many historical and literary treasures of national and international significance, such as Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the only surviving copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the autograph papers of a number of British monarchs. Collectively they form a key part of the intellectual heritage of the nation. 

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A page from the Vespasian Psalter, known as Cotton MS Vespasian A I following Robert Cotton's system of arranging his manuscripts in presses named after Roman emperors and imperial ladies. This manuscript, made in Kent in the 8th century, contains an interlinear Old English gloss of the Psalter text: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was a politician and antiquarian scholar, who began to assemble his collection of manuscripts as early as 1588, aged just seventeen. Cotton's collecting interests focused on works central to the study of British history, such as chronicles, cartularies, maps and state papers.

Matthew Paris Map of Britain (Cotton MS Claudius D VI 1)

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans (d. 1259). Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, while Kent is located due South of London: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1

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The Cotton library contains a nationally significant collection of medieval chronicles. The manuscript of the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, shown here recording (in red ink) the foundation of the monasteries of Rievaulx in 1132 and Melrose in 1136, is the oldest surviving annalistic chronicle from Scotland: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 18r

The importance of these manuscripts for our knowledge of the past cannot be overstated. For example, Robert Cotton brought together the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, including two early copies of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and five manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, dating from AD 679. Many of these manuscripts will be on display later this year in the Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

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The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, a grant of land by King Hlothhere of Kent to Abbot Beorhtwald and his monastery, dated 679. This document is also sometimes known as the 'Reculver charter' after the place where it was issued: Cotton MS Augustus II 2

After Robert Cotton's death, the library passed in turn to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). In 1702, the Cotton library was acquired by the British government, the first occasion that any library passed into national ownership in Britain – an important step in the creation of a national, public library.

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Some of the greatest works of medieval English literature are preserved uniquely in the Cotton library, among them the only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, ff. 94v–95r

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The Cotton library is integral to our knowledge of early modern British history. This document, written by King Edward VI of England in January 1551/2, is headed 'Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediatly concluded on by my counsell': Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273r. Edward's diary is also held in the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Nero C X, ff. 10–83

Most of the collection survived a major fire in 1731, which formed part of the impetus for the creation of the British Museum in 1753. Some of the manuscripts were damaged significantly in that fire, with a small number being completely destroyed. The volumes in question were restored in the 19th century and they continue to support scientific research into the preservation and digitisation of fire-damaged artefacts.

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In October 1731, the Cotton library narrowly escaped near-total destruction when a fire broke out at Ashburnham House in London. In the 19th century, it was discovered that the fire-damaged parchment leaves could be inlaid in modern paper mounts, as shown here in a page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

Ever since the library's formation, the Cotton manuscripts have been made available for consultation by scholars worldwide. You can read more about the Cotton manuscripts in our collection guide here.

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The Cotton library is particularly rich in illuminated manuscripts from Britain and beyond. Here is the opening page of the Coronation Book of King Charles V of France, commissioned in 1365: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/2, f. 35r 

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Many of the manuscripts are written in Latin or in English (including Old English, Middle English and Scots English). Other European languages represented in the collection include Cornish, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh. Non-European languages include Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Inuit, Persian and Turkish. Here is page from a Latin-Old Cornish glossary, copied in South-East Wales in the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 8v

You can view many of the Cotton manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. We recommend that, on the homepage, you type into the Manuscripts search box 'Cotton MS' or 'Cotton Ch' in order to see those currently available; more are being added all the time.

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Sir Robert Cotton was closely acquainted with many of the leading scholars and collectors of his day. In this letter, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644) sent him the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

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Cotton was renowned for rearranging his manuscripts and for preserving pages from other books and documents. Prefacing a gospelbook is this cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York, which in turn incorporates a mounted papyrus fragment of Gregory the Great, Homiliae XL in Evangelia, dating from the late 6th or 7th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

The British Library's two manuscripts of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215 and both forming part of Sir Robert Cotton's library, were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register in 2009. We are thrilled that this whole manuscript collection of national and international importance has now been recognised by UNESCO. We hope that the Cotton library will continue to inspire research into the rich cultural and historical heritage of the British Isles. The full list of inscriptions on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register can be accessed here.

Tickets for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, featuring a number of the Cotton manuscripts, can be purchased online.

 

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